Three keys to finding drought solutions in the West
There is no end in sight to the relentless drought drying up the Western United States. And virtually everyone and everything is being affected, from farmers facing massive water cuts, to salmon dying in dangerously warm water, to rural residents’ seeing their drinking water wells go dry.
I’m pleased to see that Congress is paying attention. Against this grim backdrop, I testified this week at a Senate committee hearing on drought solutions. In other testimony, Bureau of Reclamation Commission Camille Touton highlighted the huge magnitude of Western water challenges by urging states to identify within two months how to conserve 2 million to 4 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to prevent reservoirs from hitting dangerously low levels.
As many of us testified, we need an unprecedented level of collaboration to address this dire situation. Collaboration is one of at least three essential keys to finding the durable solutions required to sustain Western rural and urban communities, farmers and ranchers and aquatic ecosystems in a drier, more erratic future.
Historically, water challenges in the West have too often spiraled into conflicts. This tendency to fight just won’t work anymore. It’s too slow and often means protracted litigation resolved with another static, inadequate plan. Long-lasting, adaptive solutions are most likely to come from good-faith collaboration that brings the best minds and talents from across the stakeholder spectrum.
One exciting example of what can come from broad collaboration is California’s new Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program. Even with smart infrastructure investments, it’s estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million acres of agricultural land will have to come out of production in California’s San Joaquin Valley to balance groundwater supply and demand, as required by the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act enacted during the last drought.
Unmanaged, this transition will put many farm workers out of work and result in a patchwork of dusty fields with invasive weeds and even worse air quality.
To avoid this devastating outcome, the state of California has made an initial investment of $50 million in the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program. The intent is to transform the Central Valley into a water-resilient agricultural region by repurposing previously irrigated land into a mosaic of vibrant new uses that require less water while providing other needed benefits to the community, including habitat corridors, wildlife-friendly groundwater recharge areas and outdoor recreational spaces for families.
This program was created through an incredible collaboration, with support from a wide variety of interests: water and county agencies, community-based organizations, environmental nonprofits and agricultural groups. This concept is adaptable, with local collaboration, to a range of conditions throughout the drought-plagued West. Congress can accelerate progress by funding similar programs beyond California and empowering federal agencies to actively engage as partners.
Good data and information
For collaboration and programs like the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program to work, we need good information. How do we know if we are saving water if we aren’t measuring and monitoring?
The more quickly we can use accurate measurements and monitoring to develop a shared understanding of our situation and trajectory, the more quickly and efficiently communities can come together to develop new strategies that they desperately need.
In Congress, this means supporting long-standing programs, like the U.S. Geological Survey’s Streamgaging Network and Department of Agriculture’s SNOTEL system, and new tools, like the OpenET water data platform developed by a team of partners including NASA, Desert Research Institute, Environmental Defense Fund and many others.
Demand and supply solutions
Finally, we need the broadest portfolio of tools that we can assemble because this drought challenge is too huge for one single solution funded by one government agency. That means not just relying on increasing supply.
We can no longer depend on a steady income of rain and snow in the West to refill our water account. So, our toolbox must include tools for reducing the demand.
California’s Multibenefit Land Repurposing Program is an example of a strategy that incentivizes demand reductions, by paying landowners to put their agricultural lands to work in new ways that reduce water use. We also need familiar strategies like urban water conservation, reuse and recycling and water-saving agricultural practices like crop switching.
We give a lot of attention to big-ticket water infrastructure investments, which do need to be part of the effort. But infrastructure investments must extend to our long-neglected natural infrastructure. This includes maintaining healthy watersheds that collect rain and snowmelt, rivers that convey water and support vital ecosystems, as well as groundwater aquifers that can store far more water than reservoirs above the ground.
We can no longer hope the next winter will bring heavy snow and rain to relieve the pressure of the near-term drought. We need actions that directly respond to the compounding and extreme risks of climate change — more severe, longer droughts punctuated by more intense storms. How we respond now — and we must respond quickly — will shape the future of agriculture, communities and ecosystems across the West for years to come.
Maurice Hall is vice president of Climate Resilient Water Systems at the Environmental Defense Fund.
This piece has been updated.